Nutrition: Pickled, fermented foods are great for gut health

By Brenda Schwerdt   –   Duluth News Tribune

a set of fermented food great for gut health – top view of glass bowls against grunge wood: cucumber pickles, coconut milk yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, red beets, apple cider vinegar
Pickled and fermented foods are great for gut health.

Fermented foods are a health trend now, as they should be. There are many documented benefits to items such as yogurt and kimchi, but what about pickled foods? Let’s examine what the culinary and nutritional differences are between fermented foods and pickled foods.

Both fermenting and pickling are ways to preserve food. There can be confusion about how the two are different because some fermented foods are pickled and some pickled foods are fermented.

To be pickled a food has been preserved in a salt solution or an acid such as vinegar. A fermented food is a food in which bacteria converts sugars into acid, carbon dioxide or alcohol. Some foods can be both pickled and fermented. Traditional sauerkraut and kimchi are examples of fermented pickles; sauerkraut and kimchi often start out with a base of cabbage and salt water, which is then allowed to ferment. Sourdough bread, yogurt and tempeh are all examples of fermented foods that are not pickled, but this will focus on fermented and pickled fruits and vegetables.

Foods can be pickled and then stopped from entering the fermentation phase. Most commercial brands of pickles and sauerkraut are pickled and then pasteurized. The pasteurization process kills any bacteria, so fermentation is unable to occur.

Pickled and fermented fruits and vegetables can provide an exciting variety of flavor and texture to meals. It is easy to quickly pickle any fruit or vegetable. To make quick pickles, bring a solution of water, vinegar, salt, sugar and/or spices to a boil and then pour the solution over the fruits and vegetables. The nutritional concern with pickles is the sodium content.

Sodium comes from the salt used in the pickling solution. One average size dill pickle spear contains only 4 calories but approximately 300 mg of sodium. To get the healthiest pickle possible select a pickle that is made with more vinegar and spices, and less salt and sugar.

Fermented foods contain bacteria or “live cultures” that promote a good gut microbiome. The field of studying our gut microbiome is a rapidly growing area of nutritional science. We are quickly learning more about the benefits of a healthy gut microbiome and do not know the full effects of having a well-balanced gut microbiome. We do know for sure that having healthy gut bacteria helps boost immunity and GI-related health issues. A healthy gut microbiome may also help with mental health, diabetes and weight management.

I often use a quick pickle technique for fruits and vegetables. Recently, my husband made pickled blueberries which were delicious. My go-to favorites are pickled radishes, onions and green onions, which I like to use as more like a relish on meats, pastas, salads and sandwiches. Experiment with different pickled foods, such as these pickled blueberries, to help add variety to meals.